After traveling from 5,000 miles away, firefighters from Ireland jumped into the waves at Huntington Beach Friday to kick off a weekend of celebrating Irish culture in Southern California.
For the majority of the 29 visiting Irish firefighters, running into the ocean was a new experience.
"Most of them had never surfed before and a couple of them had never seen the ocean before," said Craig Campbell, president of the Orange County Firefighters Emerald Society.
The organization celebrates and preserves the Irish culture that is rooted in American fire departments, which have Irish members since early in American history.
You don’t have to be Irish to be a member of an Emerald Society, Campbell said, but on St. Patrick’s Day, "everybody’s Irish."
While St. Patrick’s Day is more than a week away, the Irish firefighters have begun celebrations with the Orange County fire-fighting brethren.
"It's absolutely fantastic. It's a great opportunity for us all to get to know each other," one female firefighter from Ireland said. "We all do the same job and we all have the same sense of humor."
She described the water as "really cold."
The visitors, some of whom brought their spouses along for the trip, have participated in the Shamrock Scramble Golf Tournament, visited the Rainbow Sandals factory, where they were given free flip-flops, and enjoyed food, drinks and Irish music at a pub.
Every year, a different fire department visits Orange County around St. Patrick’s Day, trips that are sponsored by the Orange County Firefighters Emerald Society. In the past, firefighters from New York City, Boston, Seattle and other cities have visited Southern California, and many of them return around this time of year.
"Once they come out here and get a taste of California, everybody keeps coming back, and we have an open door for them," said Campbell, who said a few firefighters from New Zealand showed up at the pub Thursday night.
While the Irish are welcome to come back and visit anytime, Campbell said, the Emerald Society will invite a fire department that has not yet visited Orange County to be the guests of honor next year.
"It’s going to be tough to top having the Irish come, but we’re open to anything," Campbell said.
The party continues Saturday with a cornbeef dinner, beer, Irish dancers, a live band and a DJ. Some of the visiting firefighters from the Dublin Fire Brigade Pipe Band will also join local firefighters for a bagpiping performance.
The evening will include a moment of silence for San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department detective Jeremiah MacKay, who was killed during a shootout in Big Bear as part of the Southern California search for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. Event hosts will also be collecting money for MacKay’s family.